No. 2 Ohio State overcame lackluster play and an injury to one of their star players while battling back and ultimately beating No. 5 Notre Dame 21-10 in an exciting season opener. The Buckeyes trailed at halftime and into the third quarter before the Ohio State offense put together its best drive of the night late in the contest as star quarterback C.J. Stroud completed 24 of 34 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns
That 10-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 24-yard touchdown pass from Stroud to Xavier Johnson that seemed to wake up the Buckeyes and the 100,000 in attendance at Ohio Stadium. It was the last moment they had to cheer, however, as Ohio State followed with an even better drive, going 95 yards in 14 plays to put the game out of reach.
After losing star receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba to a leg injury in the first quarter, the Buckeyes struggled to find a rhythm on offense, but Emeka Egbuka and running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Miyan Williams stepped up to fill the void.
The Fighting Irish offense got off to a promising start, picking up 54 yards on the first play of the night, but it managed only 199 yards for the rest of the game. Tyler Buchner (177 yards passing, 18 rushing) made some plays, but Notre Dame could never find consistency against an Ohio State defense that played with its hair on fire.
Tommy Eichenberg finished with two sacks for Ohio State, while Mike Hall had another sack and two tackles for loss. With their second-half comeback, the Buckeyes were able to avoid becoming the first top two team to lose its season opener since No. 1 Miami fell to BYU to begin the 1990 season.
Let's take a look at the key takeaways from Ohio State's big Week 1 win over Notre Dame.
Ohio State's defense won the game
There were questions about how Ohio State would perform in Jim Knowles' first game as defensive coordinator. Early returns are quite promising. While the Buckeyes ended up winning somewhat comfortably, it's only because their defense picked up a lackluster offense time and again. While Notre Dame hit the occasional big play through the air, the Buckeyes did not allow the Irish to string together significant drives. It looked like a completely different unit than the one that too often allowed teams to move the ball down the field in crucial spots last season.
The most significant difference was the pressure. Knowles threw all sorts of disguises at the inexperienced Buchner. All of it -- blitzes, stunts, and pass-rushers like Zach Harrison dropping into coverage -- was designed to keep Buchner guessing and unsure of where to go with the ball; it worked, for the most part. The Buckeyes finished with six tackles for loss and three sacks as they held Notre Dame to 5.3 yards per play. More importantly, it allowed the Irish to convert only 3 of 13 third downs while forcing them into third-and-long situations all night. That kept the Irish from being able to sustain drives, and it bought the Buckeyes offense more time to figure things out.
Ohio State's wide receiver depth is an issue
Who would've thought we'd be saying that?! Ohio State's receiver corps is supposed to be the best in the country, but Smith-Njigba suffered an undisclosed leg injury on the team's first series and saw only a few more plays the rest of the night. Julian Fleming was already banged up. That meant the Buckeyes had to play with a lot of inexperienced receivers, and it showed. There was miscommunication about where they were supposed to be on routes and the timing was off with Stroud.
Still, things picked up in the second half with Egbuka emerging as the most reliable target. Egbuka finished with nine receptions for 90 yards and a touchdown. Marvin Harrison Jr. caught five passes for 56 yards, and while Johnson caught only two passes, his 24-yard touchdown proved the game-winner. In the end, six receivers aside from Smith-Njigba (two catches, 3 yards) caught passes from Stroud on the evening.
Notre Dame must find a run game
Coming into the evening, I thought Notre Dame's problem on offense would be a lack of explosive plays in the passing game, making it difficult to keep up with the high-powered Ohio State offense. While they weren't consistent enough throughout the night, Buchner and his receivers hooked up for four passes of at least 20 yards, including a 54-yard connection with Lorenzo Styles on the first play of the game. The problem was the Irish couldn't do anything on the ground. The Ohio State defense held Notre Dame to only 76 yards rushing on 30 carries. Adjust for sacks, and that number only improves to 95 yards on 27 carries (3.5 per touch).
With a young quarterback making his first start on the road in a demanding environment, the Irish would have ideally gotten more from their ground game to take the load off Buchner. Instead, Buchner had to carry the load, and it went about as well as you'd expect in the long run.
Stroud can -- and must -- do better
Frankly, Stroud looked ordinary in the first half and shaky to start the second half. It wasn't until the middle of the third quarter that he seemed to find a rhythm, and from that point onward, Ohio State took control of the game. Stroud's final stat line isn't going to turn many heads (not for the right reasons, anyway), but he made big throws late when he had to and helped his team pick up a crucial win.